Whenever I discuss my work as a sexuality educator, some people do not ask any further questions – not that they are not curious, they are uncomfortable. Then there are others who applaud me for doing a great job in times where we hear so much about abuse and violence, and straightaway, the conversation moves to child sexual abuse and the need to ‘equip’ children to prevent it. I get a thumbs up for doing an important job by talking to children about abuse prevention. Accepting their approval with all humility, sometimes I dare not mention that talking about abuse is only a minuscule part of my work and what I primarily focus on is bodily pleasures and sex-positive values.
In a country like India bodily pleasure and gratification by way of sex or otherwise is looked down upon as a sign of greed and weakness. Most of us in the subcontinent are brought up with the idea that hedonism is self-indulgent, and therefore a hindrance to self-actualisation, and that one needs to learn to resist all temptations. Further, we are told that in the urge to satiate carnal appetites, one disregards consequences and loses sight of self-growth. Because we are taught to be guided by this moral compass, talking about our pleasures and desires, especially those related to sexuality, seems sinful and shameful to us.
Even between adults there are very few instances where there are conversations about pleasure and desire. Talking about sex, if at all, is limited to procreation and the prevention of abuse, infection, and unwanted pregnancy and so the legitimised framework for talking about pleasure remains the framework of protection, prevention and safety. What underlies this for most people seems to be the following questions: Will talking openly about sex from the pleasure point of view lead to people having more sex and becoming more demanding in terms of their desires? Once we know what pleasure means, will we become slaves to it?
And so, talk of pleasure is confined to men’s sexuality and some ‘innocuous’ banter on WhatsApp forwards. The latter are usually about the ‘plight’ of men who are deprived of the pleasure denied to them by women, and as a solution for a happy ending suggest ‘Mera haath mera saathi’ (my hand, my friend). It is a great suggestion, but why make it sound as if it should be the last resort? Why not take charge of one’s bodily pleasures, instead of cutting a sorry figure for oneself?
I have known of adult women who had no idea what a clitoris is and that there are more ways than just penetrative sex through which a woman’ s body is capable of finding pleasure. I know that women, mostly married women, dismiss the idea of sex toys by saying, “But I have a husband, why bother when I have the ‘real’ tool?” Even between married couples where sex is ‘legitimate’, it is a struggle to find the space and language to share sexual desires.
Where talking about sex to begin with is a challenge and adults themselves have not figured out a way to talk about desire in an honest open way, talking with children and young people about pleasure seems to some people to be too much to ask for.
So when I emphasise pleasure-affirming sexuality education, I am bound to be faced with some common misapprehensions around why one should even tell children and young people about sexual pleasure. The fear is that ‘they might start exploring’. So what if they start exploring? What is the problem? The added fear that they will get ‘addicted’ to sex and lose focus on what they are supposed to do, ie. study?
Apart from these fears, there is a prevalent notion that talking about pleasure to children and young people is frivolous and irrelevant considering there is the larger issue of prevention of abuse to address. In fact, it is for this very reason (and many more), when abuse continues to exist and people are being violated, that it becomes significant to talk about pleasure. Internalised shame about sex makes one remain silent about abuse, and not understanding the interlinkages of pleasure and boundaries might make children not recognise abuse and incest in the first place.
When there is very little space to talk about sex and pleasure, many young people are uninformed about the various ways of exploring one’s body. Even if young people talk about masturbation, there is a huge amount of guilt attached to it and a ‘moral righteousness’ prevails, which convinces them that they are doing something wrong. Only if they ask their parents or peers will they realise how common it is. But who dares ask and who dares admit? Until we talk about pleasure, we will not be able to talk fully and meaningfully about shame, guilt and fear.
In my various interactions with children and young people, I have come across more misconceptions than accurate information. Among young boys, most seem to think that masturbation leads to erectile dysfunction, receding hairline, losing one’s eyesight, decrease in sperm count, hairy palms, shrinking of the penis, and other such dire consequences. Once, while discussing masturbation with a group of teenage girls, those who agreed that girls masturbate too were instantly admonished by the rest of the group, as this was considered an ‘unsanskari’ (against tradition) thing to do. Most information received by young people is packaged with shame, guilt and fear and these have adverse effects on their relationship with themselves and others. When family, school and society curbs them from a free and open exchange of pleasure-affirming information, all that young people are left with is pornography (open access to which is banned by the government and they have to resort to proxy servers and VPNs).
One of the biggest fears young people have about sex is whether they are ‘normal’ or whether what they do is ‘normal’. I have come across many young people who hate their bodies because it looks different and consider themselves to be ‘abnormal’ because they are attracted to people of the same sex, or both or none. Carrying the huge burden of viewing themselves as ‘abnormal’ is a painful way of growing up.
To lighten this heavy load, all that children and young people need to be told is that ‘It is okay’. They need the validation that what they feel, think, experience, and do, is okay. That having sexual desires is fine as long as it does not hurt oneself or others. That it is okay for them to talk about these matters in a way that allows them not just to feel safe but also sexy. That’s where pleasure-affirming and sex-positive education comes in. What it can do is remove the shame and guilt that is attached to sex. It acknowledges the diversity of sexuality, and is thus inclusive of diverse sexual expressions and experiences. Also, it deconstructs the very idea of what is ‘normal’ for there is no single definition of normal.
However, unfortunately in this country, we have very little comprehensive sexuality education, leave alone pleasure-affirming sex-positive education. Commonly, sexuality education, if any, only focuses on menstruation and menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls as if boys’ bodies do not go through any changes during puberty. At times, it addresses preventive education against abuse and infections. Not to undermine the relevance of these issues, but the approach becomes one-dimensional. One that is driven by fear and shame. While a preventive education could help children say ‘no’, it is a well-known fact that they also need a set of skills to say ‘yes’ or ‘may be’.
Saying yes to pleasure is as important as saying no to danger. To focus only on danger and keep it separate from pleasure leads to half-knowledge. The paper Teaching Pleasure and Danger in Sexuality Education highlights that this separation (of pleasure and danger) “denies space for young people to grapple with the concept of consent, the art of negotiation, the interrelatedness and acknowledgement of pleasure, danger, and ambivalence within sexually intimate relations and the complexities of sexualities”. Talking about pleasure can also be a means to interpret and operate within a layered understanding of consent. Each person’s desire is unique and does not remain static, and therefore clear communication is a requisite for any sexual engagement to be mutually pleasurable.
There are many studies to show the effectiveness of sex-positive sexuality education, and this paper Young people and sexual pleasure – where are we now?, says “the inclusion of pleasure in sexuality education and health domains has been linked to a range of desired outcomes; more open communication about sexuality within sexual communities, increased awareness of diverse sexual practices and identities, the development of critical (feminist) awareness, increased use of condoms and the more effective use of family planning techniques, the development of increased knowledge of sexual bodily response and logistics and increased sexual agency and empowerment, particularly but not exclusively for young women.”
When we are able to engage with young people keeping aside our own discomfort and bias, we can find ways to promote responsible and enjoyable sexual behaviour, use ethical pornography for sexuality education, and nurture a culture of mutually respectful private and public boundaries to navigate sexuality.
Personally, as a sexuality educator who believes in and practises sex-positive education, after each session it is always heartening for me to receive what children and young people have to share. The relief they feel from the shame they have been carrying around sexuality. The knowledge they gain in understanding their bodies and pleasures positively. The support they get from the acknowledgment and acceptance of their desires. A confidence boost from not being judged for their sexual identity and expression. The comfort they find in being able to share their experiences without feeling awkward. The legitimacy they earn from the recognition of their sexual rights. All this makes it worthwhile.